PAULA – On the subject of learning, experiences of this type are surely more enriching than learning to design the perfect object, aren’t they?
MANOLO – Yes, indeed. I am lucky in that the CEU allows me to dedicate part of the time to showing students this point of view, and the exercises I do with them are very much in line with what you have just pointed out. For example, with the material we spoke about, luffa, what can we do? New things, surely, different and attractive. If they overcome certain design barriers, such as the fact that the material is strange, or that sometimes the quality is not so good, one finds an absolutely creative object, innovative and attractive, a material that quickly gives returns on the effort invested in it. That is the type of exercise I propose to the students. They must face something new without letting machines do everything, resolve the challenges posed by something they are not familiar with. That is what being a designer is, not just having access to technology. With more artisan, more basic, production methods, we need to be familiar with all the details of the material we are working with, and this forms part of the learning process of a designer. This project also contributes a lot in that respect. On the other hand, it is necessary to understand the context of the products, and for that the students have to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. That is the only way they can understand a great many things.
PAULA – Do they go to the communities with you?
MANOLO – Yes, although there are nuances. Places are limited, I can’t take all twenty-five students from the class. Going is voluntary, of course, but I must say that very few would endure the conditions of the terrain. Since I know many of the students, I am usually good at knowing who would endure and who would not. Of those I think would endure and would enjoy it, normally eighty per cent can’t go or don’t want to. Therefore, in the end there are usually only a few left and they are the ones that come. We did a project in Mali to which four students came and then I brought three from there to study in the CEU. Last year we were in Senegal with nine. Normally between one or nine come on each project, and not always, because sometimes the visit to the site coincides with the holiday period. Normally we design the product here and by means of plans or renders we take it to the site and set it up. There is a moment, at the beginning, when all the doubts arise, when it is important to be with the artisans. One person always needs to be there, me at least, although often my partner, Amparo, who knows how to sew, comes too. She usually takes charge of all the training in textiles.
PAULA – Having been to so many places, with so many different communities, you must have extensive knowledge of the material culture of the places. How do you see the relationship between design and anthropology?
MANOLO – Phew, what a question! You should have sent it to me in writing a week ago! (Laughter). I don’t know whether I am going to answer your question, but I am going to talk about it.
There is a starting point that we should be clear about: so that we understand each other, I call the people we work with “artisans”, but in reality they weren’t artisans before, neither do they end up being so afterwards. One way or another, they end up doing crafts, and therefore we call them artisans. What I want to say is that we don’t work with ancestral cultures, with traditions based on the materials. In reality, what we do is arrive in a place where there is nothing, we see what cheap or free materials there are in the vicinity, and with that we set up a project. What materials are there? It may be that, as occurred in a desert in Peru, there is only sand and we must adapt to design products with fabric and sand.
Another example could be that of Kenya. In the area where we work there is a problem with plastic water bottles, since there is some tourism and for years an incredible number of bottles have accumulated which end up in landfills. In one of the projects we invented a way to recycle that material and convert it into a product intended for trade.
There is also a lot of waste caused by flipflops that float and, because of the currents in the Indian Ocean, reach certain points of the African coast generating mountains of EVA rubber waste.
I say this because many people confuse an artisan in Africa with someone who masters ancestral carving techniques. And no, it isn’t like that. They have no idea how to work with any material and, moreover, the materials they can obtain free of charge are materials such as sand, an old flipflop, water bottles or recycled plastic bags. It is a disadvantage that we must add to everything we have considered so far.
PAULA – Perhaps there is even more merit in creating something useful and beautiful starting with those raw materials, right?
MANOLO – There is more merit, yes. It is also true that the products derived from those materials can only be sold in a fair-trade network that especially values the origin of the product. Nobody would buy products of that type if they were displayed in a posh shop in Ruzafa. But if you sell them through an NGO or a fair-trade shop precisely where the public values and understands where they come from, then they can be sold. We play with the advantage of awareness. In the end, one way or another, the person trying to sell us their product is also selling us the philosophy behind it.